Casamance Conflict in Senegal


Photo source: Nordic Africa Institute
By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

Senegalese authorities have launched a military offensive against fighters allied to the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance, a separatist group in the southern region of the country in March 2022.
 According to Senegal’s chief of staff, the offensive aimed to destroy all armed gangs, conducting criminal activities in the area, to preserve the integrity of Senegal’s territory. Due to this operation, around six thousand people fled, with most of them taking nothing with them.

Alasan Senghore, the secretary-general of the Gambia Red Cross Society, told Voice of America that the latest episode of fighting is one of the worst he’s ever seen. It is because the panic of fighting is in the minds of people most of the time. In the past, this organisation has carried out food distribution for displaced people in the Ziguinchor and Bignona departments of Casamançe.

Most of the fighting has been taking place near Foni Kansala.
The main objective, however, is to dismantle the bases of the MFDC faction of Salif Sadio. This mission was planned after the death and capture of some Senegalese soldiers, by the MDFC fighters in the border area with Gambia. The captured soldiers were later released by the rebels following negotiations involving the West African regional bloc ECOWAS.

The MFDC was formed in 1982 to fight for independence for Casamance. It has been blamed for sporadic attacks since then. The group finances itself through timber trafficking between Senegal and Gambia. There are eight thousand refugees produced by the conflict who currently live in Gambia. As evidently documented by researchers, the MFDC had enjoyed the support of both Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh and some influential elements in the government of Guinea Bissau in the form of arms supply and sanctuary. 

Historically, Casamance was a Portuguese colony, while as rest of Gambia was a French colony. The region also has different religious, ethnic and linguistic traditions. This uniqueness resulted in the reason it became the most dogged sanctuary of the separatists.

When it comes to Senegal’s political leaders, Abdoulaye Wade came to power in Senegal in 2000, after nearly three decades of politicking. He espoused a different strategy from that of his predecessor, Abdou Diouf, under whose presidency the conflict erupted. While Abdou Diouf responded with force, Wade, as a rational calculator, responded with pragmatism, by reducing the role Guinea-Bissau and Gambia played in serving as mediators. He saw larger meetings with them as a waste of time and resources.

Wade, who was an adept diplomatist, once asked the UN to deploy its observers on the Guinea-Bissau-Senegal border, because of a regular cross-border skirmish between MFDC fighters and the Senegalese soldiers. This ruffled feathers in Guinea-Bissau, who didn’t want the UN to intervene.

The separatist movement, at large, had posed a no larger existential threat to Senegal, as it is one of Africa’s more stable democracies. However, the conflict remains a reputational blemish.

The MFDC emerged as an armed separatist movement in 1982, and with violence peaking in the 1990s. According to UN estimates, the fighting has killed over five thousand people, internally displaced over sixty thousand people, and sent tens of thousands into refuge in neighbouring Guinea-Bissau and Gambia. 

Due to this, the Casamance region continues to experience periodic surges of violence as MFDC rebels, whose ranks are estimated at between twelve hundred to two thousand fighters. They commit theft, and engage in drug trafficking operations, through trade with China.

Women, surprisingly, have played a significant role in supporting the move for independence in Casamance. Research has shown that the role of women in armed conflicts has always been underreported. But, in Casamance, the MFDC could not have endured for so long without the women’s support.

Casamance could give several economic benefits to Senegal in the longer term if resources are exploited. According to David Seyferth who wrote an article for Atlantic Council, Casamance is blessed with Senegal’s most fertile lands, and if the area is cleared of the landmines and other artillery the land could be used to grow fruit, vegetables, and rice. Likewise, the region’s white sand beaches were once a pivotal tourist destination that drew fifty thousand visitors a year. Therefore, peace is only possible if the conflict is resolved. The absence of peace, in fact, actually prevented the Senegalese government from taking a larger peacekeeping role in West Africa.

It was in 1990 when Amnesty International first released a report which narrated widespread human rights violations of Casamancais by the Senegalese government.

However, the turning point of the conflict was in 1992 when MFDC split into two factions: Front Sud (southern front led by Abbe Diamacoune) which became primarily a Diola organisation demanding independence, and Front Nord (northern front, led by Sidy Badji) which was organised as an alliance of several groups (both Diolas and non-Diolas) calling for further negotiation based on the 1991 agreement instead of full independence. The main reason for the split was attributed to the Nord people's fear of losing their cultural identity by being dominated by Diolas. Although Front Nord supporters shared the basic objective (greater political, cultural, and economic rights of the Casamançe) with the Front Sud, they feared that Diola predominance of the Front Sud could cause the loss of multi-cultural identity among the Casamançe people.

On various occasions, the MFDC have admitted that they wanted to create a Gabou federation including Gambia, Casamance, and Guinea Bissau.

There have been ceasefire agreements, nevertheless, between the government and the rebels. Quite recently, it was in 2014, the government led by Micky Sall mandated the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD) to re-launch negotiations with three of the Southern Front movements, as negotiations were previously interrupted in 2013. The agreement included government concessions including dropping charges against key rebel leaders and promises to promote economic development and political integration of the Casamance region. But, promises of political resolution and economic incentives haven't bore fruit till now.


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